Quick N' Dirty

FLC prof partakes in elusive sprite hunt
For the first time ever, the mysterious lightning discharges known as sprites have been captured in 3D-video, thanks in part to a Fort Lewis College professor.

Sprites are large-scale, electrical discharges in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that erupt in a matter of milliseconds. They can be as high as 30 miles, as wide as 20 miles and resemble a nuclear explosion.

“They’re so new,” said Ryan Haaland, chair of the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College. “We don’t know their true impact on the global electrical circuit and global weather.”

But that is something Haaland and his colleagues have been working on. He, along with Hans C.S. Nielsen, professor of geophysics and associate director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, and Matthew G. McHarg, director of the Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center at the U.S. Air Force Academy, were recently hired by the Japanese government to get footage of the obscure phenomena.

The Japanese government network, NHK, is producing a series on the upper atmosphere between the Earth and space, known as the cosmic shore. The shows will focus on two events that occur in this area: the aurora and sprites. “That was their No. 1 goal,” Haaland said. “To capture the first sprite image in 3D.”

The mission to capture sprites involved NHK film crews, interpreters and the scientists flying over an active weather area in the Midwest known as Tornado Alley. The group was “essentially storm chasing from the air,” Haaland said.

As a member of the crew, it was Haaland’s job to help direct the planes. The aircraft needed to be on complimentary paths, so that when the event occurred it could be filmed from two different angles that could be used to create the 3D image.

Using high-speed cameras running at 10,000 frames per second, Haaland helped coordinate the two Gulfstream 4s, flying at altitudes of 45,000-plus feet, and capture the event that lasted only 17 miliseconds.

“That’s why I’m in this game,” he said. “I’m in it to understand the world we live in.”

The Japanese network invested a great deal of money in the endeavor, renting the planes and paying for fuel, equipment and travel expenses. The production crews are still working feverishly, and plan to release the show this spring in Japan. Global distribution is expected to follow on national networks such as the Discovery Channel.

The 3D image of the sprite was first presented to the public at the American Geophysical Union meeting Dec. 5 and will be a part of the Japanese television broadcast, along with footage of Haaland and his colleagues at work. “You can’t write science fiction that’s cooler than this,” Haaland said.

He hopes to continue to study the mysterious sprites. After all, little is still known about them and their connection to the global electrical circuit. Since the mission, he has submitted a request to the National Science Foundation for a grant to fund another flight for sprites, but does not expect a decision until summer 2013.

Two tragic deaths hit Telluride
It was a tragic weekend in Telluride, as the community mourned the passing of two well known residents in separate accidents. Beloved local skier and concert mainstay “Dancing Pat” Morris died in an apparent prank gone horribly awry early Sunday morning followed by the death of revered international climber John “Jack” Roberts from an apparent heart attack.

Morris, 52, an avid telemarker who boasted 100-plus days a year, died after being run over by a Home Safe van in front of the San Miguel County Courthouse, according to the Telluride Daily Planet.

According to a news release from the Telluride Marshal’s Office, Morris was among a group of 30 or so who tried to board the 10-passenger van, which offers rides home to late-night revelers, after a night on the town. However, Morris and the group were turned away, as the van was full.

For reasons unexplained, Morris, who was known to be a jokester, lay in the street in front of the right passenger tire of the van, according to the Marshal’s Office. Unable to see him, the driver pulled away, accidentally running over Morris.

Morris was taken to the Telluride Medical Center at roughly 2 a.m. Sunday. He died at 4 a.m. from his injuries, according to the San Miguel County Coroner.
According to the Planet, bystanders and friends believe intoxication may have contributed to the accident.

Morris had lived in the area for 16 years and will be remembered as a hard worker, die-hard skier, avid outdoorsman and huge music fan, according to the Planet. He was often front and center for both the Telluride Bluegrass Festival as well as powder days.

“He was a person who lived life to the fullest,” girlfriend Melissa Johnson told the Planet. “He was a great guy, a little rough around the edges ... but he will be sorely missed, especially by me.”

With a degree in restaurant management, the Oklahoma native had worked in kitchens all over the country, including Beano’s Cabin in Vail and Allred’s and Cosmopolitan in Telluride.

Outside of work, Johnson said he loved to be outside, whether biking, hiking or boating. Nothing got between him and skiing. “He had to ski every day,” Johnson said.

Adam Pace, who worked with Morris at Allred’s, said he and some coworkers plan to scan Morris’ ski pass every day this winter to ensure he tallies up more than 100 days. “Pat was the man,” Pace said. “He loved life, loved skiing, loved dancing.”

A memorial service is being planned.

A few hours after Morris’ passing, climbing legend Roberts, 59, suffered an unexplained 60-foot fall on Bridal Veil Falls, outside of Telluride. According to the Planet, Roberts possibly broke his hip in the fall, but survived and was conscious when rescuers arrived. However, his heart stopped mid-rescue, and emergency personnel were unable to revive him after 40 minutes of CPR.

San Miguel County Search and Rescue reported receiving a call about an injured ice climber shortly after noon on Sunday. Roberts had been leading the pitch, with partner, Jon Miller, below. Somehow he fell, injuring his hip and possibly sustaining internal injuries. Two hikers heard Miller’s cries for help and called 911.

According to San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, who was on scene for the rescue, Roberts had fallen to the end of his rope and hit the wall but managed to place an ice screw so Miller could lower him onto a shelf. However, the extrication process was long and tedious. When workers finally reached Roberts about an hour after the fall, he went into cardiac arrest. A paramedic administered CPR and medication, to no avail.

The San Miguel County coroner performed an autopsy Tuesday to find out if the fall was caused by medical problems or vice versa. “This had nothing to do with the ice conditions,” San Miguel County Coroner Emil Sante told the Planet. “This was a fall, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who fell.”

Sante said Roberts, a professional guide and writer, was the second person to ever climb Bridal Veil and was comfortable with the climb.

Roberts, who owned Roberts Climbing Adventures in Boulder, was spending the winter in Telluride climbing. He is survived by his wife, Pam, who was traveling in Cuba at the time.  

Record setting year for La Plata Airport
For the sixth year in a row, the Durango-La Plata County Airport set a record for passenger traffic with 175,019 people boarding commercial airlines on the tarmac in 2011.

“The increased traffic is allowing the airport to improve the customer experience flying to and from Durango,” said Ron Dent, director of aviation, in a statement. “All commercial airlines in Durango are now flying jet aircraft exclusively.”

The biggest contributor to the 5.7 percent increase, topping the 2010 total of 165, 581 passengers, was the addition of non-stop flights by American Airlines to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Also, Frontier, United and US Air upped the available seats during peak times to allow for more passenger traffic.
The larger aircraft and addition of flights are not the only improvements at the airport, according to Dent. He said passengers can look forward to new self-service airline kiosks, and the TSA is upgrading its security with the latest imaging technology.

- Missy Votel and Tracy Chamberlin



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January 26, 2024
Paper chase

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January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows